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‘The Actor’s Art and Craft’ by William Esper and Damon DiMarco

Esper studied as actor and teacher with Sanford Meisner for years and then continued to teach for decades. This book, written by DiMarco, recounts an imagined year of Esper teaching his variation of Meisner’s technique to a class of students.

It’s a similar format to Meisner’s own book; in 2006, before I’d tried the technique, I wrote these notes on that book. Neither book is a substitute for actually doing it, of course, but they’re both great reads full of useful tips and reminders.

The notes below won’t make much sense without knowing something about the Meisner process. For example, what the Repetition exercise is.

Numbers at the start of paragraphs are page numbers. All quoted passages are attributed to Esper in the book, things he says. Unquoted passages are my summarising notes.

1. Begin Again

18. Sanford Meisner: “Acting is the ability to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”

20. “Because if in fact the actors are skilled, what we’re watching isn’t pretend. It is an actual event.”

“Actors are wonderful liars. … but the difference is this: Their lies are always grounded in truth, and always — always! — their lies serve the purpose of art.”

23. Substitute “doing” for “living” in Meisner’s definition. “…the reality of doing — is the foundation of all good acting…” Don’t pretend to do something. Really count, think, search for an object, etc.

30-1. “…most people measure their lives by so-called significant moments, the number of which can usually be counted on the fingers of two hands. A graduation. A marriage. … A sudden tragedy. A vacation won in a sweepstakes. These are the peak moments in a normal person’s life. But an actor lives with a different truth. To an actor, every moment is a peak moment. … there is no such thing as small moments or important moments to the actor — these are tricks of the mind. The actor therefore trains himself to pay attention to all moments, and to live each one as if each moment were his last.”

2. The First Exercise

34-5. All artists must start with “training exercises which develop the skills necessary to meet the demands of their medium.” Acting is no exception.

36. Repetition exercise. “If you have to change a word in the Repetition in order to keep your answer honest, do it. Never sacrifice a truthful answer to the literalness of the Repetition.” This is the first way Repetition can change.

38-9. The second way: “…sooner or later one of the partners will have an organic impulse to change the course of the exchange. … Thinking your way into a shift is wrong. It’s inorganic and calculated, like trying to manipulate a conversation. We don’t seem to develop our minds with Repetition; rather we seek to develop our instincts. Everything that happens in Repetition should be driven by impulses. Emotions. You must respond to what you hear from your partner without analysis. … You can’t think an impulse.”

40-1. Harold Clurman on what a person needs to be a wonderful actor: “… a wonderfully trained voice … a very alive and physical instrument … a lot of temperament. Which means you get upset easily, you laugh easily, you cry easily.” He left out intelligence. Esper: “…your intellect shouldn’t be brought to work with you. … actors think more with their hearts than with their heads.”

45-6. Your concentration should not be on yourself, but on the Repetition. And, “…actors [cannot] think and feel at the same time. … Act before you think. Repeat before you think. … Repetition isn’t like [American] football … it’s more like Ping-Pong; the ball moves fast and never stops. … If you pause to think, you’re done for.”

“Let go of any judgements you want to place on the outcome.”

3. Repetition Continues

49. “Repetition always starts by one actor opening his complete attention to the other actor and finding something concrete about them that holds some interest for him, no matter how small. He then expresses this interest in a comment or an observation.”

50. “The ability to make conversation is not something actors need. You don’t want your comment to come from your head.”

51. “In art, the prized response is always the subjective response [e.g. opinion rather than fact.]. This is what separates art from science.”

52. “The only thing you have to offer as an actor is your unique personality.”

52-3. “An actor must know how he feels about everything. Right now … saying to somebody, ‘I really like your belt,’ is much more helpful to your development than telling him, ‘You’ve got a white shirt on.’”

53-54. “The third way the Repetition can change is when you express an opinion, a point of view … so long as it comes to the surface from something that really exists, something that’s really going on between you and your partner.”

54-6. “In real life there are real consequences to speaking the truth.” And so we often don’t, we keep things in or are polite rather than honest. But, as actors, “Every time you withhold a truthful response, you actively hurt your development as an actor. … Don’t edit [your responses] in order to be perceived as nice.”

57. “The fourth way that the Repetition can change is by responding to your partner’s behaviour.” Not just to what they say.

4. Developing Concentration

The activity must demand one hundred percent of your concentration.

73. “Each moment from your partner will come as an interjection or interruption to the concentration you put on your activity. However, you must answer each of those interruptions for what they mean to you, no matter how involved you are in your task.”

74. “The bigger the obstacle, the greater the struggle. The greater the struggle, the more life we see.”

76-6. “You must take every moment you’re given in the exercise as an absolute reality. If, in the exercise, someone says something to you that would hurt your feelings in real life, you must allow your feelings to be hurt in the exercise. … It’s not okay to miss a moment.”

“Every word you utter which does not come from a truthful place within you will corrode your ability to act well. You must, as actors and artists, take exceptional care to be truthful unto yourselves at all times.”

79. “Without a standard of perfection, no activity is difficult.”

81. You must have a reason for doing your activity, called justifications. “They must be simple and they must be specific. … the justification should be imaginary, but something that your imagination can accept as possible.”

82. The justification is “the first step [in this process] the actor takes into the imaginary world.”

5. How to Justify Absolutely Anything

84. “Don’t make conversation [with your partner]. Just answer her real responses, which are expressed in her behaviour rather than her words.”

88-91. Be specific — in your justifications for an activity, in your reactions, in what you say, etc. “…generalities tell us nothing.”

93. As well as being simple and specific your activity must have a connection to reality, so you can believe what you’re doing. “Otherwise you discard your sense of truth. And once you do that, you can’t invest the exercise with your actor’s faith.”

94-5. “An actor’s faith allows the suggestions made to his imagination to seem as real to him — sometimes more real — than life. … The closest thing to an actor’s faith in ordinary life is religious faith.” Anyone religious has to accept their religion’s articles on blind faith alone. If the script says I’m your father, that’s the way it is. You don’t question it.

96. “When creating a justification, stay in the realm of the probable.” So that you can believe it. The justification must be “acceptable to your sense of truth.”

97. “The moment you feel your spirit getting excited by the possibility of a ‘what-if?’ — that’s when you know you’ve hit on something that will help your work.”

98. “You will never be able to tap the deepest wells of your individual talent until you really explore your own personal justifications. You must ask yourself: What excites me? What repulses me? What would make me kill?” etc.

100. “…the justification of any activity is: the use of craft to open a doorway into the imaginary world. But the door won’t swing open if you use events that are really happening in your life.”

101-2. But you can use the meanings you have for things in the real world. “In fact you must do this if your acting has any hope of being personal and real to you.” So, base justifications on real people, and what they mean to you, but not on real events that have happened or are happening — add your imagination.

103. You must give yourself a reasonable amount of time to complete the activity, but no more. “…reasonable urgency…”

103-4. A good activity needs: “a concrete task, a standard of perfection to supply an obstacle to the doing, a simple but specific justification, and reasonable urgency.”

104-5. Everything about your activity must be independent of your partner. They’re Independent Activities.

6. Don’t Gird Yourself to Act: Open Yourself to Receive

107. One person doing their activity, the other knocks on the door. The knock is the first moment; the first person’s reaction is the second moment. And then into Repetition. Work directly off the knock, don’t just make polite conversation (which would be “Come in!” etc.)

113. “Working at the door [being the one who knocks] can be very difficult because it specifically gives the actor nothing to hold on to but the other person.” And you don’t know what they’ll be like.

114. “You must take every moment personally. If your partner says something in the exercise that would hurt your feelings or offend you in real life, you must allow yourself to be really hurt or really offended in the exercise.” You are, and should be, vulnerable.

115-7. Doing the Independent Activity is something we can consciously control. “But whatever happens in the contact between [the two people] must be unconscious.” The person at the door will always function from the unconscious, because their full concentration is on their partner. “Don’t come to the door girding yourself to act. Come to the door having opened yourself to receive.”

124. “You asked me, ‘How can we get better at processing our emotions?’ You should all turn off your cell phones. Shut down your computers. Click off your iPods and your televisions and everything you listen to that isn’t human. Modern society has surrounded us with these things and they’re killing us. We’re beginning to forget what it is simply to breathe and eat and laugh and watch and wonder and listen and experience one another. We’re forgetting how to be human beings with actual opinions and genuine feelings and originality.”

7. Objectives and Expectations

131-2. The person coming to the door has an objective. “A good objective is like having money in your pocket.” If you put some cash in your pocket in the morning you don’t walk around all day reminding yourself it’s there. But if you need some cash during the day, you remember that it’s there. Or, if you get in your car and start driving to Chicago you don’t have to keep telling yourself where you’re heading, but when you come to a fork in the road you know to take the one to Chicago.

131-2. But why have an objective if your full attention should be on your partner? “One: The objective justifies knocking on the door and making contact with your partner.” It helps fill out the reality of the exercise. Second, the objective will soon be used in a special way.

135-8. Objectives should be specific and concrete. But it doesn’t have to be immediate, or it will force you to push things. Don’t let the objective get in the way of how you react to each moment.

138-140. Now, the person knocking stays outside the door until it’s answered. The other person “will craft an expectation that will never be met by the visiting person.” i.e you’re expecting someone but when you open the door, it’s not them, it’s your scene partner.

8. Action Problems

143-7. Criminal Action Problems: the person coming to the door “must invent a circumstance that makes it absolutely essential for you to enter this room and commit a crime.” e.g. there’s an object of value you’re going to steal. You must get it. Your partner comes up with the reason why you have to steal this item. Bring in a prop you can physically hunt for.

Person with the objective goes out. The partner hides the prop in the room, then they might go to sleep in the room. (You can give yourself a totally mental Independent Activity, like trying to remember every tiny moment of a trip or a special day, as a substitute for actually sleeping.) Turn off the lights. The person outside must come in and try to take the item without waking the other.

153. A Criminal Action Problem needs: What specifically do I want; Why do I have to commit this crime; Where is the thing located (somewhere you’re not supposed to be); When is the best time of day for this crime to take place; and Who, what is your relationship with the other person.

The aim is to acquaint the actor with heightened circumstances. People are at their most alert and alive when the stakes are highest.

155. Or, the other person might not be asleep, but perhaps will return home early, while the thief is searching.

[This seems to me like a standalone exercise, not an integral part of the progress through Repetition, Independent Activities, knocking at the door, etc. that makes up most of the rest of the book.]

9. Scene Work

160. Learn lines mechanically, with no inflection. When both partners know the lines, do them together as a conversation, in public places. If people notice and stare, “you’re not talking, you’re acting too much.” Don’t try to do the scene. Let the scene do you.

164. Before a scripted scene begins there is a single event (usually only one) which, if it didn’t happen, the scene couldn’t happen. The Precipitating Circumstance. It’s what brought these people together in this place at this time.

165. Understand the circumstances, have an objective, and let the scene happen.

167-8. Ignore all punctuation.

169. “Bad actors consciously adjust their inner responses to what they think the lines of the text require. Good actors adjust the text to the inner emotional line created by their sensitized responses to the other actor.”

10. Farewell to Repetition

183. Now we stop repeating. “Don’t do anything unless the other person makes you do it.”

185-6. Now, the activities should be ones that generate an emotional response in you. [I don’t understand the difference here, compared to before.]

11. Daydreams, Fantasies and Your Inner Life

203. “Before you emotionally prepare for a scene, you must ask yourself: What does this situation mean to me? In other words: What’s the one feeling I’d get from this set of circumstances?”

204-6. Boil down the scene’s circumstances to a single emotion you can prepare using the word “because”. E.g. because I’ve been overworked for years and because I’ve never had any vacation and because I’ve never had any praise and because I’ve just inherited a fortune and can tell my boss what to do with his job… how would I feel?

Maybe you’d feel triumphant. Now find a daydream that would make you feel the same, feel triumphant. A completely different situation that means something to you, that gives you this same feeling of triumph.

206. The circumstances and your daydream have nothing to do with each other, literally. But they also “have everything to do with each other, because the one is the source that you go to in order to create the emotional life which you bring to the other.”

206-9. The daydream can be as personal and as crude as necessary. Never share these daydreams with anyone. “It would ruin them. By sharing that information you dispel the fantasy’s power to activate you.”

209-10.Emotional Preparation is only for the first moment of a scene. After that, you must leave it alone and abandon yourself to the improvisation.” “You cannot prepare for anything that happens in the scene.” “The moment you walk through the door you must allow yourself to respond to whatever exists.” You don’t abandon the preparation; you leave it alone.

214-5. Don’t use real events from life to fuel your Emotional Preparation. That’s Affective Memory, or emotion memory, from the Strasberg Method. Daydreaming comes more naturally. Affective Memory can also be limiting, “in that it only permits the actor to reference his own literal past reality.” Daydreams are limitless and a renewable resource. “And Affective Memory has a tendency to make actors more introverted.” And Stanislavsky gave the technique up in the end. And it can result in you revisiting literal trauma from your past, which isn’t a good idea.

12. Relationships

221. “Your Emotional Preparation persists and continues unless and until something really happens to change it. When that happens, you have to let it change.”

222-3. A relationship isn’t defined solely by whether people are husband and wife, or brother and sister. That tells you little. “A relationship is emotional. It’s about your feelings toward someone. You have to ask yourself, ‘What does this person mean to me? How do I feel toward him?’ … Our feelings [about a person] always come to the surface in response to some specific event or fact.”

223-4. There must be a reason why you feel a certain way about someone. He’s your very best friend because… of something that happened. The script won’t give you enough information to form this relationship in a way that’s meaningful to you. You have to craft something, maybe using cues from the script, using your imagination.

230-1. “…relationships tend to fall into two very broad categories. You either like somebody or you don’t.” “…the relationships you craft have to be specific enough and meaningful enough so that, when you come into contact with your partner, something happens inside of you.” “Your arrival at your partner’s door must be set up as an important event.”

13. The Domestic Exercise

234-5. The same as before but now the space doesn’t belong to the person doing the Independent Activity; it’s shared. So the other person doesn’t have to knock.

238. The person coming to the door will also have an activity, one of three types. Coming-home activities, tiny tasks that you’ll do to establish a reality for yourself and the illusion of reality for an audience. Emptying your pockets… Going through your mail.” “…second… life-goes-on activity… essentially an Independent Activity, but it’s not related in any way to the circumstances you’ve set up in your exercise.” Just a normal thing you might do in that space. “…third… an activity which is related to your objective.”

240. “You must never do anything to show what you are feeling. … Everything going on inside you will work its way to the surface, usually at the most unexpected moment.”

241. The person coming in crafts the specific relationship and tells the other what they need to know. Each person must make the relationship meaningful to them. If you’re a happy couple, “set up something about the other person that strikes a deep and personal chord in you.”

243. Your work: “Be honest. Take in. Give back. Don’t push.”

14. The Second Round of Scene Work

252. When you have a scripted scene you must ask yourself what is the Precipitating Circumstance, i.e. “what is the event which predicated the scene’s happening?” And what do those circumstances mean to you?

256. Don’t worry about how the character would feel. Work from yourself instead.

257-8. “No one’s personality is so sensitized that they’ll drive instant, full emotion from every single issue they confront. The truth is you don’t have to. All every actor needs is one or two hot-button issues that shake the core of his or her personality. From these one or two issues, you can derive an infinite number of emotional states.” E.g. if you’re sensitive to criticism a daydream about specific bad criticism of a performance might get you to outrage. Or an award nomination gets you to overjoyed. “So tap into one of these personal issues, any of which can be expanded into a million scenarios, and all of which will interest your subconscious.”

261. If someone drops a bombshell on you in a scene don’t worry about how to react. “All you have to do with a moment like that is genuinely try to take it in.”

266. “Your job isn’t to judge the character you play. Your job is to understand her.”